Jesus May Not Have Existed
Updated: Jul 10
“Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him...”[i] - Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most famous atheist of the Post-World War II generation, suggested Jesus’ existence was “quite doubtful.” Christopher Hitchens, in his book, god is not Great, asserted Jesus’ existence was “highly questionable.”[ii] Richard Dawkins, a bit more charitably, says Jesus probably existed.[iii] These are rather surprising statements.
Stating that Jesus of Nazareth probably existed is sort of like saying that Pontus Pilate or King Herod probably existed. However, to humor the late Bertrand Russell, let’s ask the question anyway – did a Jewish person called Jesus of Nazareth live in Israel (the Kingdom of Judea) in the 1st century? And, did his followers consider him to be the Jewish Messiah?
To answer the question, let’s explore historical sources who were not friendly toward Christianity.
Josephus (~37 – 100 AD) – Let’s start with Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who was close to the events in the Kingdom of Judea (Israel). He had been a General in the Jewish army that unsuccessfully revolted against the Roman Empire in 66 AD. He had quite a bit to say about Jesus:
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders."
- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, (18.3.3) [iv]
According to Josephus, not only did Jesus exist, so did John the Baptist, King Herod, Festus, Felix, Agrippa, Pontius Pilate, James (the half-brother of Jesus) and lots of other people written about in the New Testament. Flavius Josephus wrote about them in his histories – because they were real people.[v]
The Talmud– What about the Jewish religious leaders who didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah? As you might expect, they wrote about him too. Their contentions about Jesus were recorded in the Talmud, which was compiled in the centuries after Jesus’ death. It attributed Jesus’ miracles to sorcery and conveyed that Jesus was executed for blasphemy. And, because Jesus was “connected with the government” (or the kingship), a herald announced for forty days that he was to be executed. The Talmud records his execution occurred just before the Jewish Passover.[vi]
Tacitus (56 – 120 AD) – Now let’s look at what Tacitus, a 1st century Roman historian, had to say. He recorded that Emperor Nero (54–68 AD) blamed the fire, which destroyed much of the city of Rome, on the Christians and had them sadistically executed in large numbers. He further conveyed that the name Christian came from “Christus” who “had been executed during the rule of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate.”[vii]
Suetonius (69 – ~122 AD) – Suetonius, a Roman historian conveyed that the Jews in Rome were in such an uproar about a “Chrestus” that Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) expelled them from the city.[viii] He also conveyed that Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) killed a cousin who was “thought by some to have been a convert to the Christian religion.”[ix]
Pliny the Younger (~61 – 113 AD) – Pliny was the Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus (in Asia Minor). He inquired in a letter to Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) as to how Christians should be treated. He wanted to know if his practice of arresting and torturing Christians so they would recant and curse Christ (and executing those who would not) was to be standard practice. He conveyed to the Emperor that Christians “were accustomed to assemble at dawn on a fixed day, to sing a hymn antiphonally to Christ as God” and they pledged to “avoid acts of theft, brigandage, and adultery, not to break their word, and not to withhold money deposited with them when asked for it.”[x]
Celsus (~178 AD) – Celsus, a 2nd century Greek philosopher, strongly opposed Christianity. He wrote an extensive refutation of Christianity titled True Discourse.[xi] However, by doing so, he attested to Jesus’ life.
Celsus readily conceded that Jesus lived, saying, “a few years ago he began to teach this doctrine, being regarded by Christians as the son of God.”[xii] However, he sought to refute the claims of Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles and resurrection from the dead. He attributed Jesus’ parentage to a Roman soldier, his miracles to sorcery and magic, and his resurrection to a shadow.[xiii] Celsus acknowledged Jesus’ suffering and death, calling it “punishment by the Jews for his crimes.”[xiv] And, he called Jesus’ apostles “tax-gatherers and sailors of the vilest character.”[xv]
In True Discourse, Celsus confirmed that Jesus lived, taught, reportedly performed miracles, was crucified and died. He also confirmed that Christians claimed Jesus rose from the dead.
Putting Together the Pieces
Now, let’s put together the pieces. First, Jewish, Roman and Greek sources, who were not followers of Jesus, would be unlikely to record these incidents from Jesus’ life if he was not a real person. According to them, Jesus of Nazareth really lived.
Jesus was a 1st century Jew who was reportedly born of a virgin, seen as virtuous, deemed to have performed miracles, and was regarded as the Messiah (the Christ) by many. His followers included tax collectors and “sailors.” His theological opponents saw his miracles as sorcery, accused him of blasphemy and sought his execution. He was crucified just before the Jewish Passover feast by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, (26 – 36 AD). This was during the reign of Emperor Tiberius Caesar. Jesus’ followers then claimed they saw him alive three days after his crucifixion and worshiped him as God. His followers sought to live virtuous lives and came to be called Christians.
All of these things can be easily established from early sources who were not Jesus’ followers. To say Jesus’ existence was questionable seems odd. It doesn’t seem to have been questionable in the 1st and 2nd centuries.
About Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) was a British Earl, mathematician, philosopher, writer and social activist. He was educated at Cambridge and won a Nobel Prize for Literature. He was also a leading advocate of atheist in the 20th century.
Copyright 2021 by Patrick Prill
[i] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 16. [ii] Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great, (New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, 2009), 114. [iii] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 122. [iv] Pines, Shlomo, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavium and its Implications, (Jerusalem, Jerusalem Academic Press, 1971), 9-10. This translation of a 10th century Arabic manuscript is neutral toward Jesus being the Messiah. Other ancient manuscripts explicitly state that Jesus is the Messiah. The manuscript Eusebius quoted from in the 4th century is an example. See Ecclesiastical History, Book 1 Chapter 11. (Eusebius’ selection of sources was good and his quotations from sources were generally quite accurate.) [v] Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews and Antiquities of the Jews, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 480. [vi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin (43a), (London, England: Soncino Press, 1987) [vii] Tacitus, Annals, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2008), 359. [viii] Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, (London, England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1997), 228. [ix] Suetonius, 359. [x] Pliny The Younger, Complete Letters, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 278-279. [xi] The contents of Celsus’ True Discourse have been reconstructed through a detailed argument by argument rebuttal written by Origen, titled Against Celsus. [xii] Origen, Against Celsus, Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 407. [xiii] Origen, Against Celsus, 410, 399, 427, 472. [xiv] Origen, Against Celsus, 420, 431, 448. [xv] Origen, Against Celsus, 424.